On Poetry: February 2024

New collections to make life more lyrical.

On Poetry: February 2024

Linda Susan Jackson’s Truth Be Told (Four Way Books) opens with a strong, evocative poem, “From Here to There,” which acts both as an invocation — chanting assiduously the words “here” and “there’’ — and as a cumulative ledger of images to frame the concerns of the collection.

The book moves directly out of the prologue into the poem “Pecola’s Juggernaut,” alluding to Toni Morrison’s protagonist from The Bluest Eye, and a persona that will act as the reader’s Virgil in the dark woods for a majority of the book. As touchstone and cipher, Pecola is positioned as an expansive prism to reflect all the dark and light that passes through the author’s life and the reader’s life. The reader arrives at such stark stanzas that arc a volta toward wisdom; there is nothing left but awe:

To be the ordinary ugly daughter
Of a less than ordinary woman
Is an accident that could have
Crushed any girl & probably has

To confront one’s taut assumptions within the tension of each line, to allow oneself to be observed by and to observe Pecola’s willingness to see the world again and to speak on it — these are the persistent pleasures and sharp intelligence of the book. Particularly in the first half of the collection, which includes poems in Pecola’s voice — epistles written to and from Pecola and to other characters — the reader is immersed in variations on beauty, Blackness, womanhood, and agency that might allow an attentive reader apertures toward freedom.

There is also a consistent ekphrastic engagement here with the artwork and ideas of the visual artist Kara Walker. By doing this in both explicit ways (like epigraphs) and in more implicit ways, Jackson pulls Walker into a sorority of sorts with Pecola Breedlove. This is an important connecting move that Jackson will also do later in the book with the mythological figure Persephone.

Cinema and Jackson’s imaginative approach to form also shape many of these poems. Fictional and historical figures enter the “shots” or “frames” of the poems and arise out of the diegetic world informed by The Bluest Eye and American history writ large. This often introduces a habitual duality that permeates the content: To see and be seen. The poems “Scene One, Take Two” and “View-Master” are examples of how these movements show up in form and content. “View-Master” uses five sections, all with the subtitle “Click” repeated over each one.

As the second half of the book arrives, so does a renewed Persephone to join the sisterhood of Pecola and Walker, allowing the doors of persona to shine light on the author’s past and invite all women, and all who love and care about the well-being of women, into a conversation. That being said, Jackson rightfully centers Black women’s experiences, telling the reader what one should have learned long ago: The experiences of Black women are universal and worthy of art, not exploitation.

Lastly, Truth Be Told holds delights. Even a casual reader will perceive the author’s attention to formal variety, sonic subtly, and well-crafted line work. Any aspiring poet can and should count this book among the many that can move emotionally and instruct intelligently on what is possible in craft. Quite simply, Linda Susan Jackson has given all of us an almanac on how to “Tell all the truth / but tell it slant.”


Pinion (Four Way Books) by Monica Rico never lets the tenderness of the word “kiss” or the many metaphors of birds grow stale. Even as the extraordinary tensions of quotidian lives are highlighted by attending to the lives of Mexican Americans in Michigan, none of the possibilities of spell-making or the miraculous are lost in syntax. Consider this example from the poem “Citizenship of the Owl at General Motors”:

a shotblast burst through the core.
Without sun Michigan sounds like Michoacán
where his eyes didn’t need shielding.
An engine block sealed shut
in the beautiful body of a Chevy.
He casts this metal

heart, a continuous
hum of the line.

The lines bring to mind the kind of working-class attention that Philip Levine brought to his poems about Detroit, but with a different attention to synthesis. Here, everything that feels so physical, present, and muscular in the syntax also makes us see the weariness of something constructed to be shipped or driven somewhere else. The migrations of birds (for survival) and of people (for work) intersect, guiding the reader toward greater empathy.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the poems that invoke them, arrive in the first half of the book like interludes and cautionary tales, reminding the reader, “There is so much life / in destruction.” Classical literature and its sense of journey is critiqued with a sharp acumen in poems like “Learning to Sail, I Can Only Think of Odysseus and Ask to Be Tied to the Mast,” which opens with such excellent, irreverent humor, asking:

What did Odysseus do except sleep with spiders?

These poems also make their way through the cost of marriage and relationships, but never without Rico’s intelligent use of metaphor. As a debut, Pinion delivers on the promise of its length, 160 pages, by demonstrating a deft range of approaches, while keeping the poems grounded in the pleasures of the line. While many of the narratives might also have worked in prose, I am so glad these journeys, these flocks, exist as poems.

Certainly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much of my own family’s history feels reflected here, but that level of personal connection is not required to enjoy what this book has to offer. One could read the table of contents alone as a poem prefiguring the poems. Or, one could turn simply to the poem “Figurehead”:

I misunderstood.
The first woman sailor I met

had one eye and a husband
who called her Happy.

She hated it.

One could also linger on what Rico allows to have that last word in Pinion, do what the speaker of that poem does, and find it satisfying:

Last night, I let in all the birds.

Steven Leyva’s poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.

Love poetry? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus